Research / BFI Working PaperOct 01, 2018

Do the Most Important Artists Make the Most Expensive Paintings?

Art experts have disagreed about whether art markets accurately reflect artistic importance. This paper uses published surveys of art history to construct a critical ranking of the 30 most important American painters of the last century, then uses auction records to identify the most expensive paintings by these artists. The results show a strong positive association between critical rankings and auction prices: there is a high rank correlation between the critical ranking of artists and a ranking of the artists by their single highest auction price, and the top artists in the critical ranking are highly disproportionately represented among auction sales over $10 million, $30 million, and $50 million. Auction markets do recognize artistic importance: the greatest artists produce the most expensive paintings, and it is their most important works that sell for the highest prices.

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